Opinion: Key Questions About USAF’s NGAD Sixth-Gen Aircraft Program

U.S. Air Force’s NGAD program
Credit: Kenneth McNulty/U.S. Air Force

It is increasingly clear that the U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation combat aircraft program will be the next major military aircraft program. There are two big unknowns: Is there a flying aircraft, and who is the prime contractor? And there are five secondary questions that also should be asked about the program.

First, last September, then-Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper revealed the existence of a full-scale prototype combat jet, in flight testing and “breaking records.” This is purportedly part of NGAD, but given the evolving nature of the program—and given uncertainties about the maturity of this prototype—it isn’t clear how relevant this jet is to NGAD’s ultimate form. But NGAD clearly is ramping up as a program, with $1.5 billion in R&D funding requested in fiscal 2022 (up from $902 million in fiscal 2021). 

Second, we don’t know who built this prototype. In its second-quarter results, Lockheed Martin took a $0.61 charge per share related to a classified program, and in its first-quarter results the company attributed a $135 million sales increase to classified contracts. This month, the company opened a large new factory at its Skunk Works site. Since classified reconnaissance aircraft are built in small numbers and seldom require large, new facilities, this plant may be connected to a new fighter. But Boeing and Northrop Grumman are also likely competitors.

Beyond these uncertainties, there are five more questions about NGAD: 

1. What is the timing? Developing and integrating mission systems and other key components is a bigger challenge than building a test aircraft. There might be a long gap between flying a prototype and producing an operational weapon. Twelve years passed between the first flight of Lockheed Martin’s YF-22 and the first F-22 deliveries and almost 10 years elapsed between the X-35 and initial F-35 deliveries. Digitalization may speed this process, but there is no clear evidence of this. In fact, the pre-digital F-15 and F-16 saw just two and five years pass, respectively, between first flight and service entry. 

2. How many will be procured? Roper indicated that the service wanted a Digital Century Series approach, with relatively small procurement batches of multiple aircraft developed in succession. But the procurement number is dependent on the timing: If it takes a decade (and the usual tens of billions of dollars in nonrecurring funding) to produce an operational fighter, then buying small numbers would be incredibly inefficient. Also, as the saying goes, the enemy gets a vote here, too. If conflict with a peer adversary is deemed a short- or midterm risk, then focusing on the current production model makes a lot more sense than waiting years for the next thing or series of things. 

3. How joint is it? The Navy’s F/A-XX program would seem to be somewhat behind NGAD in definition and funding. But history indicates that there is little hope of a navalized NGAD aircraft meeting this requirement. The Joint Strike Fighter is more of an Air Force/Marine Corps fighter; the Navy refuses to budget for more than tiny numbers of F-35Cs. For the F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and F-22, “jointness” failed altogether. It has been half a century since a U.S. fighter program was truly joint, with the McDonnell F-4—and the Air Force was not so enthusiastic about it. 

4. How global is it? The F-35 has more than a dozen foreign customers; the F-22 had none, for political and cost reasons. The F-15 might provide a good baseline for high-end fighter exports, if NGAD stays in production long enough to attract international interest—there are six international Eagle customers. One was Japan, which might also find NGAD coproduction attractive as an alternative to its indigenous F-3 stealth fighter program. 

5. What gets hurt when procurement starts? Ramping up NGAD procurement cash would inevitably affect U.S. Air Force F-35A and/or F-15EX funding. Since the latter is an older airframe, and since it is being procured at a much lower rate, NGAD could lead to F-15EX program termination. Also, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown recently stated that the F-22 will be retired, leaving the F-35A, F-15 and F-16 and, of course NGAD. 

In addition to these program questions, another great unknown concerns the new fighter’s capabilities. Specifically, what will deployment of this aircraft mean for the balance of power, particularly against China? Will NGAD’s manned-unmanned teaming capabilities redress the quantitative imbalance in the Western Pacific? The answer to this is years away, but it is crucial to the strategic future of the U.S.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.

Richard Aboulafia

Contributing columnist Richard Aboulafia is managing director at Aerodynamic Advisory. He is based in Washington.


Excellent questions Richard.
Let me answer some of them for you, since they have kind of already answered some of these. No, the airframe won't be a Joint airframe, because it limits capabilities too much. It's the powerplants and systems that should be shared and they were supposed to do that, but they have not been definitive, in that regard. Given that the powerplants take much longer to develop than the airframes, I don't see them using that different of powerplants. especially given the three stream variants in development now for production. Also, no, it won't be sold to foreign customers for security reasons, the same as the F-22. They are going to try to build two versions, a smaller variant for Europe and a larger, hence more internal fuel, version for the Pacific for greater range in that theater.

Having said that, I won't see it as a viable program until it is handed over to the RCO. If it isn't handed over to the RCO, then any claims of being on budget and on time, which you rightly pointed out we don't yet, are out the window.
"Digitalization may speed this process, but there is no clear evidence of this."
Fully second that.